George Elgar Hicks

Woman’s Mission: Companion of Manhood

1863

In Tate Britain

Artist
George Elgar Hicks 1824–1914
Medium
Oil paint on canvas
Dimensions
Support: 762 x 641 mm
frame: 851 x 727 x 70 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Presented by David Barclay 1960
Reference
T00397

Summary

This is the central panel of a triptych entitled Woman’s Mission and representing the three stages in a woman’s life as ‘ministering angel’. The third of the panels, Comfort of Old Age 1862 is also in Tate’s collection (Tate T14037); the first, Guide of Childhood, is lost, although an oil study for it exists in the collection of Dunedin Public Art Gallery. Together the panels of the triptych echo prevailing views of woman’s role in the Victorian home and reinforce the desired image of the ‘fairer sex’ as pure and submissive, as conveyed by Coventry Patmore in his popular poem ‘The Angel in the House’ (1854-63). The picture also anticipates John Ruskin’s discussion of the relationships between men and women in his essay ‘Of Queens’ Gardens’, from Sesame and Lilies (1865). Ruskin recommends that the education of girls should lead to ‘true wifely subjection’ on the part of ‘her who was made to be the helpmate of man’ (quoted in Lambourne, p.377).

The narrative is made clear in the picture through the discarded, black-edged envelope lying on the floor and the letter in the husband’s hand. He has just received news of the death of someone close to him and his wife, the ‘companion of manhood’, comforts him in his grief. Hicks uses the picture’s setting to reinforce the notion that she is a dutiful wife in every way. She is clearly able to run an efficient and comfortable home. The table is neatly laid for breakfast and there are fresh flowers in the vase on the mantlepiece. She is attractive and well groomed, but not frivolous in appearance. Her concern is solely for her husband’s welfare and wellbeing. As Ruskin writes,

the woman’s power is for rule not battle – and her intellect is not for invention or creation, but for sweet ordering, arrangement and decision…Her function is praise. By her office and place she is protected from all danger and temptation…This is the true nature of home – it is the place of Peace, the shelter, not only from all injury, but from all terror, doubt and division… And whenever a true wife comes, the home is always round her.
(Quoted in Lambourne, p.377.)

Further reading
Lionel Lambourne, Victorian Painting, London 1999, pp.375-7, reproduced in colour p.375.
Elizabeth Prettejohn, The Art of the Pre-Raphaelites, London 2000, pp.103-5, reproduced in colour p.106.
Kendall Smaling Wood, ‘George Elgar Hicks’s Woman’s Mission and the Apotheosis of the Domestic’, in Tate Papers, no.22, Autumn 2014, https://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/tate-papers/22/george-elgar-hicks-womans-mission-and-the-apotheosis-of-the-domestic, accessed 9 January 2019.

Frances Fowle
December 2000

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Display caption

These two paintings make up two scenes in a triptych (three-part picture) called Woman’s Mission which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1863. The missing section is Guide of Childhood. As a group the pictures represent the same woman in her role as mother, wife and attentive daughter or, as one critic of the time put it: ‘woman in three phases of her duties as ministering angel’. The woman in both pictures bears a striking resemblance to the artist’s depictions of his own wife, Maria.

Gallery label, November 2016

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